PMI '94 keynote address
leading in a world of change
Robert E. Kadlec
Thank you for inviting me to be your opening keynote speaker. It is always an honor to be asked to address a large gathering of professionals such as this. It is particularly rewarding to speak to this group because we are rather proud of some of our recent project work. And we are proud of the people who made our projects succeed. I'll be more specific a little later in my remarks.
Earlier this year, Fortune did a cover story on leadership. The magazine offered starkly different approaches from two of today's most quoted business observers, Tom Peters and Peter Drucker. For $65,000 Tom Peters will come and speak for two hours to your company managers about leadership. For free, Peter Drucker says, “Leadership is all hype. We've had three great leaders in this century-Hitler, Stalin and Mao—and you see what devastation they left behind.” Today I am asked to do like Tom Peters and talk about leadership while doing like Peter Drucker and do it for free.
In fact, it is somewhat daunting to be asked to speak to a theme as lofty and as all-encompassing as “Leading in a World of Change.” Think for a moment of the possibilities just in rearranging the words: A Changing World of Leadership; A World of Changing Leaders; Leading World Change; and so on. Our perspectives on the topic are varied. The directions we could take are many. None are necessarily wrong directions. They simply take us to different destinations. The lesson for us this morning is that the leader knows what destination she or he wants to go to and knows how to bring others along on the journey.
Today I would like to begin our journey at the end of our theme: I am going to begin by talking about change. Then I will talk a bit about leaders and qualities of leadership. Finally, I will define “world” in terms of projects and, in particular, projects that have been undertaken by BC Gas.
For anybody in a position of managing, whether you are on the shop floor or in the executive boardroom; whether you are a quality control supervisor at a General Motors plant or a middle management bureaucrat in Beijing, managing change is now an everyday part of the job.
Change management has become a discipline taught in business schools. Books on managing change are bestsellers. And change management consultants are selling their wares to corporations across the continent.
You might ask why at this stage of business development in North America, there appears a sudden emphasis on managing change. After all, isn't change the natural extension of our progress through life, or business, or history? Are we dealing with anew phenomenon or are we simply recognizing a need that has been with us all along?
Change is not a new phenomenon. But change isn't what it used to be. Change has picked up the pace. What used to be incremental is now exponential. We used to have the luxury of making long-range projections with some degree of certainty. Now we have rapid, unpredictable, often nerve-shattering change.
Think about it. In the 1980s the overnight letter was the speed of innovation. Today we resort to it when we are not in a hurry. In the 1980s Federal Express was leading-edge. Quickly the fax outpaced Fedex; and today the fax machine is being threatened by the modem and worldwide, real-time E-mail. The pace of change dictates that today's innovation is tomorrow's artifact.
Consider some of the following:
- In ten years, at least one-fourth of all current “knowledge” and accepted “practice” will be obsolete. The lifespan of technologies is down to 18 months—and decreasing.
- Within ten years, 20 times as many people will be working at home.
- Two-career families will multiply; nearly one-half of all families currently have two pay checks; nearly three-quarters will in the next century.
- If you are under 25 and working in North America, you can expect to change careers every decade and jobs every four years—partly because you choose to and partly because entire industries will disappear and be replaced by others we haven't even heard of yet.
Rapid change is the way of our future and the challenge is to live with it effectively and without damage to ourselves and our families. I offer that caution because I believe there is a related contradiction, even a conflict, within all of us. That contradiction is what I call the Change Progress Paradox. In Western society we have come to worship progress—progress is the touchstone of our expanding economies. Progress is our most important product. But we don't like change.
Street musicians like change. Babies with wet diapers like change. Most people, however, respond negatively to change. Some people just hate change! So how do we as a society worship at the altar of progress if we don't embrace change?
We begin by recognizing the Change-Progress Paradox for what it is. I suggest to you that change is often progress that is not yet understood; and that progress is, in fact, change that has been properly communicated and understood and agreed to by the parties implementing or affected by the change.
Without understanding, without agreement, one person's progress may be another person's annoying change. And we all find ourselves, from time to time, on either side of the paradox.
In accepting this fact, we are recognizing that the business environment is not the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago. We cannot survive if we insist on doing business the way we did 10 or 20 years ago. People are different today from even the early '80s: the people who are our employees, people who live in the communities we serve; people who invest in our companies. Lifestyles, expectations and attitudes have taken on dramatic change. The old adage “If it ain't broke, don't fix it!” has no application in today's world. Now we have to say “If it ain't broke, break it!” The best time to change is when you don't have to. The time to change is before events force change on you.
If you and your company don't grow, improve and evolve just as in nature, you will suffer the fate of all things that fail to evolve—ultimate failure. Keep reminding yourself that there is no such thing as a “finished product’'—there are only stages of change.
Which brings me to the second aspect of today's theme—and, again, I am proceeding according to my own order—leadership.
Has it occurred to you that leadership in times of no change is an oxymoron? I mean, how do you lead if you aren't going somewhere that you are not already at? Can you see yourselves searching through history for an obituary that reads: “He was a great leader. While he led us nothing happened; nothing changed.” Not likely. Perhaps we could call such a state dynamic uneventfulness. It kind of sounds like a bureaucrat's idea of heaven, doesn't it? In any event we wouldn't call it leadership.
So what is leadership? Warren Bennis, in his book, On Becoming a Leader, identifies four characteristics:
- Commitment to mission
- An ability to communicate a vision
- Self-confidence, and
- Personal integrity.
Those all seem pretty self-evident. And they have the attraction of being condensed into the bullet form of communication popular in business communication today.
But let's look outside the business literature. Leaders, after all, are not limited to business—science, education, theology, the arts all offer us paradigms of leadership. For example, in 1845 Charles Baudelaire, the French poet and critic, called for a new kind of art, modern art. In his definition, a true artist would “extract from daily life its epic quality, and make us see and understand … how great and poetic we are.”
That was 149 years ago. He was talking about art. But you can paraphrase it slightly today and come awfully close to the Bennis idea that a leader must have the ability to communicate a vision.
It also touches on another modern reality: People are desperately seeking clarity. We are daily confronted by so many facts, bombarded with so many messages, we are drowning in a tidal wave of information. But what does it all mean? Among all the clamor, in the din of many voices, who will show us where it is all taking us? Who can extract from all the sound and fury of our daily lives a clear and succinct picture of how our lives will be affected by certain courses of action?
This is one measure of leadership—helping us see a future state clearly
The second measure is in enabling the action to achieve that future state. Earlier this year, Fortune quoted Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter as differentiating between management and leadership. Management, he says, “comprises activities that keep an organization running . . . Leadership involves getting things started and facilitating change.” The article further suggests that corporate leaders “face two fundamental tasks: first, to develop and articulate exactly what the company is trying to accomplish; and second, to create an environment in which employees can figure out what needs to be done and then do it well.”
It is, therefore, not enough to simply see the future and to describe it. Jules Verne saw the future. His prescience was uncanny and far-reaching. However, Verne was a seer, not a leader. He could see the future but he could not take us there. The leader must be able to tell us the goal and help us get to it.
And, just how is this done, you ask?
My first prescriptive to you is that you begin your leadership, as your charity, at home. In simple terms, you cannot hope to provide others with a clear vision of some desired future state if you are not, yourself, clear about where you want to go. Ask yourself, on the assumption that everything goes the way you want it to go, what will be different when you have completed your journey from what exists now? What will have changed? What will have been accomplished? How will you have moved the peanut? It doesn't matter if you are talking about a five-year business plan or a construction project or storming the beaches in a war zone: you should be able to describe to yourself what will be different, what will be accomplished.
When you are satisfied that you understand your vision, ask yourself if others could grasp it quickly. Distill your vision to its simplest possible terms. What may be perfectly obvious to you may be quite obscure to others. After all, they have been attending to the important things in their lives while you are working on your grand vision. Get it down to ABC. Communicate it. And repeat it. Communicate it. And repeat it. Communicate it. And repeat it.
This advice is based on the two basic tenets of advertising: reach and frequency. The first is a measure of how many people potentially hear, read or view a message; the second measure, frequency, calculates how often the message is received by its audience. Never underestimate how often a message must be sent before it is truly received. And, I might add, don't overlook the possibility that people may have been sending you a number of messages that haven't yet gotten through to you.
When you start to hear the followers proclaiming the vision as if they had conceived it themselves, you know the leader has passed the first requirement of leadership.
The second prescriptive I offer is that leadership does not require unanimous approval. Not all leaders are going to the same destinations. And, just as obviously, all followers are not going to the same destinations. When a leader has proclaimed where she or he is going, there will be those who voice disapproval or disappointment or disaffection. Some will leave the team. Others may exert themselves in dissuading the leader.
The old adage “lf it ain't broke, don't fix it!” has no application in today's world. Now we have to say “If it ain't broke, break it!” The best time to change is when you don't have to. The time to change is before events force change on you.
The leader must understand that it is perfectly human not to be enthusiastic in support of goals that don't match individual hopes and aspirations. However, the leader cannot be forever held back in vain attempts to get everyone on board. Consensus does not require unanimity. Democracy certainly does not require unanimous election votes. And leaders are not distracted by detractors.
There are qualities we expect of good leaders. But there are also qualities that leaders expect of good followers. Remember, Julius Caesar was doing a darn fine job of leader until he ran afoul of a couple of rotten followers in Cassius and Brutus. I suggest that leaders pay some attention to the quality of their followers. If it is clear that the vision does not work for some of them, the solution may be to suggest that they would be happier outside your organization, with a different leader and a different vision.
Leadership demands thorough understanding of people and what motivates them. Followers must understand the point at which they must join the pursuit of the common vision or become dissidents with the attendant consequences. Leadership is not social work.
How do we find these extraordinary people we call leaders? Where do they come from? Is there a mold or a template we can use to produce them? I don't really have the answer to that question. Napoleon suggested that leaders emerged from encounters of ability and opportunity. Certainly we could point to one of the great names of our century and concur: In the 1930s Winston Churchill was a man in the wilderness; he had been around in politics for so long he had become almost a curiosity. Circumstances changed with the emergence of Hitler and Nazi Germany and Churchill's place in history was assured. He had a vision, in his nation's darkest hours, of military victory over the vastly superior German forces. He rallied his nation and the Allied nations to his vision. And they prevailed.
Most organizations and most projects have dark hours. Those who have a vision of the light will generally emerge as your leaders.
Finally I turn to the remaining element of Leading in a World of Change—the “world.” For my purposes today I am going to define “world” as the world of project management.
At the outset of my speech I said I was happy to be here because I am particularly proud of the leadership shown by people involved in a couple of our projects. The first of these projects is the Surrey-Langley Pipeline Project, which was completed two years ago. That project required us to construct a 40-inch natural gas pipeline through 26 kilometers of largely urban neighborhoods in the suburbs of Vancouver. You haven't defined the term “daunting” until you contemplate approaching a neighborhood to discuss running convoys of D-9 Cats through suburban backyards.
The project was a watershed for the company and for many of us who had engineered projects in the past. We changed from push me to pull me. We used to regard putting the pipe in the ground as the big job and telling people what we were doing as incidental. In this project, the major hurdle was winning public approval; later, putting the pipe in the ground seemed quick and easy by comparison.
Fred Baines did a great job getting the project through. And David Bodnar's public consultation work for the project won a gold medal from the Pacific Coast Gas Association. These guys are leaders and we are proud of them.
The second project is an independent power project at Williams Lake in the central part of British Columbia. People in Williams Lake used to complain about fly ash from beehive burners that burned waste wood from local lumber mills. Don Fairbairn and Steve Davis of our subsidiary power company found a way for everyone to win. The provincial government was persuaded that the government-owned utility should pay an environmental premium for power that generated environmental benefits.
With that agreement in hand, Don and Steve and our partners brought together the interests of the local community with the interests of the mill owners together with the interests of the provincial government. The result was a modern, biomass-fueled power generating plant. Everyone came out a winner—including us. Last year that project was the PMI Project of the Year for the West Coast British Columbia Chapter.
Much of what I have to say about leadership in the world of project management comes from our experience with those two projects.
We live in a time of rising expectations for involvement in the decision making process and declining public confidence in those who have traditionally been given decision making authority. If we are to be effective we must reach out to the stakeholders who can influence our outcomes . . . the decision influencers who can help us or hurt us. We must actively take our ideas for change to those who have a stake in them. And we must do it in the most personal way that can be managed—whether that is one-on-one, face-to-face meetings, small groups, or open houses.
We must begin communicating our proposals early enough in the process so that stakeholders have an opportunity to influence the changes that are ultimately made.
Throughout, we require an active effort to listen and an openness to new ideas. I think it is particularly important to emphasize the need to accept ideas from outside our professional disciplines or work areas. It is too easy to believe that only engineers can properly plan a pipeline route, that only accountants can track our receivables.
It is too easy to let so-called expertise stand in the way of innovation. No discipline has a monopoly or a copyright on good ideas. We got good ideas on our pipeline project from farmers who had worked the land and seen it in all the seasonal conditions of the year. We made some alternations based on suggestions from landowners who had never seen a pipeline, let alone designed one. We think we had a better project as a result.
Tell people you will listen. Then listen. And the good ideas will flood in to turn your proposed change into real progress.
I would like to close with the Chinese proverb Fortune used to open their piece on post-heroic leadership—“Of the best leader, when he is gone, they will say: We did it ourselves.”
Robert E. Kadlec is president and chief executive officer of BC Gas, Inc., in Vancouver, British Columbia.
PM Network ● January 1995